In her new book Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Felicity Amaya Schaeffer makes stunning connections between indigenous ways of life and relationships with the land with modern, militaristic border surveillance technologies.
Troubled Borders: The Militarized Science of Surveillance of Sacred Native Land (Duke University Press, August 2022) looks at the US-Mexico border and beyond through the perspective of indigenous tribes living across the border and those displaced from their lands from the Mayan region of Mexico and Guatemala. The book builds on Schaeffer’s research interests from her previous book, love and rich, in which she describes the emergence of cyber marriage as a pathway to migration and citizenship. “I always think of the frontier as/and technology,” she says. “My grandparents migrated across the US-Mexico border before it was even a border, during the Mexican Revolution. There’s nothing natural about borders, but borders have been an obsession of mine because they’ve defined such a big part of my family’s life and how they see themselves as Mexican-Americans in this country. At this point as the border gets more dangerous and militarized, I started thinking, how did it get so militarized? How would you start investigating that?”
Readers may be surprised to find that technologies such as swarm drones and an automated border patrol agent called AVATAR are not concepts from a futuristic black mirror episode, but part of the current reality in the border region. In chapters that span Apache, Tohono O’odham and Mayan cultures, Schaeffer reveals ways indigenous concepts are co-opted in AI and robotics in the roads militarized technology, for example, has evolved from Apache surveillance methods and how swarm surveillance “misappropriates Mayan beekeeping science.”
During her research, “it became clear that there was a deep connection,” she says. “The containment of the reserve, the containment of the border, was a heartbreaking story to contemplate, how Indian fugitives posed a threat to the settlement of the western border and the newly purchased southwestern border with Mexico – these Apache and Sioux -Indian scouts were hired by the cavalry to be the eyes of the army before they had drones.” Drones that, she says, now carry names like “Apache” and “Blackhawk.”
Schaeffer traveled to Tech Park at the University of Arizona and “tracked the technologies they were using to militarize the frontier,” she says. “The academy was involved in the study and design of frontier technologies.” While researching there at a stage where she didn’t know what the book would be, she was more focused on how technologies affect migrants. “I had no idea there was a different story,” she says. “When I got to Tech Park I thought I’d find the drones and surveillance towers, but a woman I interviewed there sent me to Fort Huachuca and that’s where the story really started for me.”
Because her discoveries resonated deeply, Schaeffer was also faced with uncertainty. Although indigenous practices such as knowledge of herbs and other healing techniques were still practiced by her Mexican grandmother, who denied any claim that she was indigenous, she felt unsure whether a story about indigenous peoples living along the borderlands was right for her. narrate. “The project came about at a time when I was beginning to connect with my calling back to the land as a de-nativized Xicana. It was a project that continued to fascinate me.”
At the same time that that trickled in, she met some tribesmen from the O’odham reservation through one of her students. They had come to Santa Cruz from Arizona and began to discuss the influence of the border on their reservation over dinner. “Our perspectives were aligned,” she says. “They invited me to the reserve so that I could see the border for myself, understand more about their country and talk to the elderly and others who were fighting the border wall. It was a powerful journey.” The O’odham Reservation sprawls across what is often referred to as the US-Mexico border region, and Schaeffer describes their land’s disturbances, including the destruction of ancestral burial grounds and sacred saguaro cactus to build the border wall and surveillance infrastructure.
Schaeffer expresses the hope for a borderless world and a return of the land to the many indigenous tribes that live on and about this land. In the conclusion, she calls for an end to the technological violence that drives border infrastructure and the limited thinking that causes genocidal violence against indigenous peoples across time and space: “Wire, metal and virtual fences will fall, rust and become wired.As the empire expands, so do the indigenous peoples and allies in a widespread protest involving Earth’s powerful ancestors.The waters will flow, the animals will cross over, and the flowers will bloom again, so that the land and the people the gift of life for all will heal and regenerate.”
Schaeffer, who currently serves as Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies, is grateful that her research was supported by a UCSC COR grant, a grant from the Research Center of the Americas, and from the Fellows Academy in 2019-2020, a writing program initiated by former executive vice chancellor Marlene Tromp. Yield from Troubled Borders support the Tohono O’odham participants of the Peace and Dignity Journey.
A new project she is undertaking is a public symposium on the emerging area of indigenous frontier lands through the Baskin Endowed Chair in Winter Quarter. “The Indigenous Borderlands Symposium explodes nation-state thinking through land-based practice across intimate and planetary scales, reconfiguring connectivity, law, and the boundaries of land and human becoming. She hopes the talks from the symposium will culminate in a joint special issue of a magazine she works with her collaborators from across the UC system.